Sunday, July 14, 2024

Samedi Night at the Movies – A Quick Guide to Haitian Vodou

Baron Samedi (the slightly less impressive Baron Saturday, translated into English,) and also Baron Samdi, Bawon Samedi, or Bawon Sanmdi, is one of the Loa (or Lwa) of Haitian vodou, the spirits of the dead.

Samedi is a Loa of the dead, along with Baron’s numerous other incarnations Baron Cimetière, Baron La Croix, and Baron Kriminel. He is the head of the Guédé (or Ghede) family of Lwa, or an aspect of them, or possibly their spiritual father. His wife is the Loa Maman Brigitte.

Haitian Vodou, also written as ‘voodoo’, is a religion practised chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora and combines several beliefs and rituals. Practitioners are called ‘vodouists’; ‘vodouisants’, ‘serviteurs’ or ‘servants of the spirits’. The word was first documented in 1658 and is distinct, though very similar, to the practices of Voodoo in Louisiana, hence the differing spelling.

Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable creator god, Bondye (Bon Dieu, literally ‘Good God’). As Bondye does not involve themselves in human affairs, vodouists direct their worship toward spirits subservient to Bondye, called ‘Lwa’ or sometimes, ‘Loa’. Every Lwa is responsible for a particular aspect of life, with the dynamic and changing personalities of each Lwa reflecting the many possibilities inherent to the aspects of life over which they preside. To navigate daily life, vodouists cultivate personal relationships with the loa through the presentation of offerings, the creation of personal altars and devotional objects, and participation in elaborate ceremonies of music, dance, and spirit possession.

Vodou originated in the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue in the 18th century, when African religious practice was actively suppressed, and enslaved Africans were forced to convert to Christianity. Religious practices of contemporary Vodou are descended from, and closely related to, West African Vodun as practised by the Fon and Ewe. Indeed, the word vodou comes from the Fon word, ‘Vôdoun’ meaning deity.

Vodou also incorporates elements and symbolism from other African peoples including the Yorùbá and Bakongo; as well as Taíno religious beliefs, and European spirituality including Roman Catholic Christianity, European mysticism, Freemasonry, and other influences. Vodouists practise their religion in family groups or sometimes in groups which are more like underground secret societies. Whichever the setting, the use of drums and dancing are prevalent, with the increasingly ecstatic participants looking to become possessed by one of the Lwa so that the group may communicate with them.

Despite these influences, Haitian Vodou is distinct from Louisiana Voodoo (hence the spelling difference) and Cuban variants, although the lack of an orthodox approach allows the majority of Vodouists to also practise Roman Catholicism in tandem.

Those in the Haitian Vodou practices that serve the Lwa are the Bokor. The Bokor are the Vodou priest/priestesses who can be hired to perform various sorcery. The Bokor practice both light and dark forms of magic. The dark magic that they practice revolves around the creation of zombies through the use of a mixture of poisons. These poisons are derived mainly from puffer fish and other poisonous substances.

Lwa are divided into nations or ‘nanchon’, dominated by Rada Lwa which are seen as being ‘cool’ and their ‘hot counterparts, Petwo Lwa. Invoked at the start of Rada ceremonies is Papa Legba, a guardian at the crossroads of life who can speak all languages. Appearing as a grandfather-like character in ragged clothes, wearing a straw hat and drinking rum, it is likely that he is the basis for countless crossroads-based blues songs. The Petwo equivalent is Kalfu, a much younger man whose rum is infused with gunpowder. There are many other Lwa, all associated with elements or aspects of the community – they include Cousin Zaka (a farmer who is Lwa of the harvest); Loca (Lwa of plants and healing) and Danbala (a great serpent controlling all waters).

Considered a fanmi rather than a nanchon are The Ghede. The Ghede is the largest family of Lwa in Vodou and embodies the power of death and fertility. They are traditionally led by the Barons (La Croix, Samedi, Cimitière, Kriminel), and Maman Brigitte (or Gran Brigit). The Ghede as a family are loud, rude (although rarely to the point of real insult), sexual, and usually a lot of fun. As those who have lived already, they have nothing to fear and frequently display how far past consequences and feeling they are when they come through in a service – eating glass, raw chillis, and anointing their sensitive areas with chilli rum for example. Their traditional colours are black and purple.

The Ghede spirits include Gede Doub, Guede-Linto, Guede L’Orage, Guede Nibo and Guede Ti Malice, and are celebrated at Fèt Gede on November 2nd by revellers dressed in white with painted faces, offering candles and money to a Vodou priest as he spits Clairin (moonshine laced with 21 scotch bonnet peppers) in their faces.

Samedi is often pictured as a tall, handsome black man, wearing a top hat (white or black), a black tuxedo and dark glasses. He carries a cane and smokes cigarettes or cigars and is sometimes shown with cotton plugs in each nostril, reflecting the practice of Haitian burials. Other representations show him with a more skeletal appearance. He is regularly seen swigging alcohol (usually rum) and is known for dancing, disruption, obscenity and debauchery, none of which get in the way of his actual duties of healing those near or approaching death, as it is only Baron who can accept an individual into the realm of the dead.

Baron Samedi spends most of his time in the invisible realm of spirits. He is notorious for his outrageous behaviour, swearing continuously and making filthy jokes to the other spirits. He is married to another powerful spirit known as Maman Brigitte. Baron Samedi can usually be found at the crossroads between the worlds of the living and the dead. When someone dies, he digs their grave and greets their soul after they have been buried, leading them to the underworld.

Maman Brigitte is similarly crazed and drinks rum infused with hot peppers and is symbolized by a black rooster. Like Baron and the Ghede, she uses obscenities, protecting gravestones in cemeteries if they are properly marked with a cross.

Baron La Croix (The Cross) is the ultimate suave and sophisticated spirit of Death – quite cultured and debonair. He has an existential philosophy about death, finding death’s reason for being both humorous and absurd. Baron La Croix is the extreme expression of individuality and offers to you the reminder of delighting in life’s pleasures.

Baron Cimitière is said to be the male guardian of the cemetery, protecting its graves. His horses wear a tuxedo or tails and a top hat. They have expensive tastes, smoking cigars and drinking wine or fine liquor. They are just as crass as the other Ghede, but ape polite manners and upper-class airs while doing so.

Baron Kriminel is a much-feared spirit or Lwa in the Haitian Vodou religion. He is envisioned as a murderer who has been condemned to death and is invoked to pronounce swift judgment. When a person becomes possessed by Baron Kriminel they shout obscenities, spit and try to stab surrounding people. If during the possession, Baron Kriminel is presented with food he does not like, he will bite chunks out of the arms of the possessed person. He sometimes calls for sacrifices of black chickens to be doused in petrol and set alight. The shrieking of the chickens when being burned alive is said to appeal to the cruel nature of Baron Kriminel and appease him.

Baron Kriminel is said to be one of Baron Samedi’s many aspects. Baron Kriminel will often grant requests in lieu, he is said to return on Fèt Gede, the Voduns’ “Festival of the Dead” to claim payment. Baron Kriminel is often represented by Saint Martin de Porres, perhaps because his feast day is November 3rd, the day after Fèt Gede. His colours include black, purple, white and deep blood red.

Samedi ensures all corpses rot in the ground to stop any soul from being brought back as a brainless zombie. What he demands in return depends on his mood. Sometimes he is content with his followers wearing black, white or purple clothes or using sacred objects; he may simply ask for a small gift of cigars, rum, black coffee, grilled peanuts or bread.

Vodou is certainly a religion of contradictions. Though considered misogynistic, there are many priestesses (manbo); whilst perceived as primitive, they are accepting of gay and lesbian worshippers; though surrounding themselves with spirits of dubious renown, they live their lives without distinguishing between good and evil, accepting that life is reflected by their own actions.

The most well-known representation of Baron Samedi in film is undoubtedly in the James Bond film, ‘Live and Let Die‘. Played by Geoffrey Holder, the film is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the character is a mortal man playing the Baron or is indeed the Baron of Vodou lore.

Perhaps a more successful representation of the Baron is in the 1974 supernatural horror movie ‘Sugar Hill‘, starring Don Pedro Colley, which is far more soaked in the traditions and practices.

Horror films have long used vodou or voodoo as inspiration, from early efforts like ‘White Zombie‘, ‘I Walked With a Zombie‘, ‘King of the Zombies‘ and ‘Voodoo Man‘ to Hammer’s take on walking slaves, ‘The Plague of the Zombies‘, Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Black Demons’, cinematic outrage ‘Zombie Nightmare‘ and Wes Craven’s ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow‘.

Craven’s film is one of the bolder attempts to capture the essence of the Haitian’s beliefs and is loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, wherein Davis recounted his experiences in Haiti investigating the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was allegedly poisoned, buried alive, and revived with a herbal brew which produced what was called a zombie.

Daz Lawrence

For all your Lwa needs, check out ‘The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa

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